Monthly Archives: April 2020

Blessed, by Kate Bowler: The Quandary of the Prosperity Gospel

My mother had been diagnosed with stage IV cancer, a deadly case of glioblastoma, or cancer of the brain. My heart sank when her doctor told me, over the phone, that even with surgery, the cancer had a near 100% probability of return, and it would be fatal. In her eighties, my mother had only a few months to live, at best.

My dad and I opted for the surgery, which would give her as much time as possible, to be with family, before her ultimate death. Radiation and chemotherapy would bring her more misery than healing. After living a full, wonderful, and vibrant life, it was best simply to allow her to say goodbyes to those who mattered most to her.

Yet after the surgery, when I would come by and visit her in the evening, in her skilled-nursing room, she would have the television on. Night after night, she would tune into watching a very popular Pentecostal preacher, out of Houston, Texas, or another similar preacher.  The message was subtle, but consistently positive: If my mom had the right thoughts, healing was just around the corner.

It is important to know something about my mom.

She went to church, but she was not someone who was avidly, evangelically minded, let’s just say. So, for her to be mesmerized by a television preacher was completely out of step for her. But these were not normal times.

She was dying of cancer.

If only she had faith, she was told, she would be healed….

…..the prosperity gospel offered her a chance of survival.

 

Reading Kate Bowler’s Blessed: A History of the Prosperity Gospel was not like reading a PhD thesis, even though she originally wrote this as her PhD thesis, while a student a Duke University’s graduate program, in religious history. I read; that is, listened to, Kate Bowler as she beautifully read her book to me, via audiobook, while in the midst of “lock down” mode, during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Blessed surveys the historical roots of the prosperity gospel, and how it continues to be a multi-billion dollar, church-based industry, filling up many of the largest megachurches, in the United States, and saturating the television airwaves, cable networks, and Internet podcasts. The influence of the prosperity gospel even extends up into halls of political power, in the United States White House.

I learned a couple of new things about the prosperity gospel. First, I realized that, contrary to common belief, the prosperity gospel is not really about learning how to become rich and wealthy, per se. Instead, the prosperity gospel primarily appeals to people who are just trying to survive. Folks in prosperity gospel churches typically do not mind if their pastor drives an expensive car, lives in a massive mansion, or wears outrageously fancy clothes. The pastor’s wealth is evidence, reassuring the faithful, that the prosperity gospel really works.

Adherents do get bothered when pastors embezzle funds, or practice deceit in gaining riches, because that would be a sign that those pastors really do not believe what they are preaching. For the prosperity gospel promises that it is God who will provide, and such provision is not a result of human contriving. Followers of the prosperity gospel look to their pastor’s genuine success as reassuring themselves that they might be able to get that long, lost promised promotion, or that nice, new house, to replace the cramped, rented place they are in now, or …. in the case of my mother…. an extension on a life, with a newly restored body, then currently riddled with cancer.

It helped me to have more compassion on those who are drawn to the prosperity gospel.

Secondly, the prosperity gospel is not always that easy to detect. There are what can be called “hard-sell” prosperity gospel preachers, who are pretty upfront in propagating “name-it-and-claim-it” rhetoric. One of the more popular 20th century prosperity preachers, Oral Roberts, used to talk about this concept of “seed-faith,” where believers need to think of “giving to God as a seed we sow, and not a debt we owe.”

In prosperity theology, God has established a contract with the believer. Prayer is a legal binding act. We can call upon God to enforce the terms of the contract by “demanding” God to act, because the believer is legally entitled to receive healing and wealth.

Early 20th century prosperity teacher E. W. Kenyon even taught that Jesus transferred the “power of attorney to all those who use his name.” By speaking out in “the name of Jesus,” that legal authority is given over to the person, who desires to see God act, through healing and other material well-being. For example, Kenyon replaced the “ask” in “ask, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7), with the word “demand.” We can demand God to do things, because God has contracted himself to do them! Kate Bowler demonstrates that Kenyon’s message was an amalgamation of Christian theology, specifically as derived from the late 19th century Keswick spirituality movement, and the “New Thought Movement,” of the same era, a more loosely religious philosophy of “mind cure” and self-help.

But Kate Bowler shows that there are “soft-sell” prosperity gospel proponents, where the message is a lot more subtle. The prosperity gospel largely grew out of Pentecostal and charismatic movements, but not all Pentecostal/ charismatic churches can be called “prosperity gospel” churches, as such. Nevertheless, Kate Bowler identified a number of Pentecostal/charismatic-based ministries, that I believed were not “prosperity gospel” oriented, that upon closer examination, promoted this more toned down approach to prosperity theology

Even the famed Oral Roberts, left his Pentecostal Holiness background, to become a member of the United Methodist church, a more classically “respectable” denomination. In contrast with other, more “hard sell” prosperity gospel promoters, that sometimes eschewed modern medicine, Oral Roberts campaigned to build a large medical hospital, that would rival medical care given in more secular settings. Today, Oral Roberts University has a large percentage of undergraduates who go into graduate-level medical programs, in some of America’s leading medical schools. In other words, the line between prosperity gospel teachings and non-prosperity gospel teachings gets blurred in such “soft-sell” prosperity movements.

This lesson is all the more important to me, as I have often held a certain grudge against a form of cessationism, an evangelical interpretation of Scripture that teaches that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as a gift of performing miracles, possessed by a particular person, ceased to operate in the era of the 1st century Christian church. Cessationists, generally speaking, believe that while the New Testament was still being written, there was a definite need for miraculous gifts of the Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, to flourish. But once the New Testament was completed, and the last of the original apostles had died off, those miraculous gifts ceased to function. Everything a Christian ever needs now is found in the pages of the Bible. Speaking in tongues today is no longer expected.

Though I am not convinced that such an uncompromising cessationism is really Scripturally founded, I am now more sympathetic towards those who hold to this position, as many such cessationists tend to conflate the distorting influence of the prosperity gospel with nearly all forms of Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement.  I would argue that such a categorization is unfair, particularly in light of the fact that a number of Pentecostal and charismatic group explicit reject the prosperity gospel. But the pervasive presence of “soft-sell” prosperity theology so effectively blurs the line, that I can see why so many cessationists hold to the aggressively non-charismatic positions that they do.

The very slippery nature of the prosperity gospel, as it rose within the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, has therefore proven to be a quandary for me. Simply saying that “such-and-such is teaching the prosperity gospel” defies easy categorization.

I am therefore grateful for Kate Bowler’s work, as it helped me to have more empathy for those who are drawn to the prosperity gospel, and to realize that the fine line for drawing where the prosperity gospel really begins and ends, is not always easy to find. Yet what makes Bowler’s work the most poignant is that during the latter stage of her research into the prosperity gospel, she herself was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, at the relatively young age of 35. Though apparently immunotherapy has extended her life thus far, the interests that originally plunged her into her PhD research, suddenly became deeply personal.

What is missing in Blessed is a clear, Scriptural exposition as to how the prosperity gospel falls short of solid, orthodox Bible teaching. For that, I have found a number of helpful blog posts (such as #1 and #2) written by Costi Hinn, a nephew of hard-sell prosperity Bible teacher, Benni Hinn, who left the prosperity gospel a few years ago. Costi Hinn, now a more Reformed-mind Bible pastor in Arizona, blogs occasionally at The Gospel Coalition. But I was not expecting Bowler’s PhD thesis to be a polemic, anyway. Blessed stands alone as an authoritative treatment on how the prosperity gospel came to be, and continues to flourish.

I eventually persuaded my mother to turn off the television. I read the Bible to her during my every other evening visits, while the cancer slowly took her life away. I knew that she desperately wanted to find healing, and she really wanted to believe that what the prosperity gospel teachers were saying were true. I honestly think that such prosperity preachers meant well. Believe me, I really wanted them to be right, too.

But it really frustrated me that the message she was hearing was promising something that could not be ultimately delivered. It really felt like the prosperity preachers were cheating my mother out of what was vastly more important. In fancy theological language, the prosperity gospel was offering an over-realized eschatology, promising something for her in this life, that only properly and fully belonged in the next. The prosperity gospel was a distraction, that while surely helpful in many ways, was ultimately obscuring the message of the True Gospel.

It was more important that my mom discover what it meant to be reconciled with God. I did pray for my mother that she might be healed. But I also prayed that during those final weeks, that she might have a genuine and rich encounter with the God who Created her, the great Redeemer, who bought her life with a price, that she might find lasting peace with Jesus.

My mother died soon thereafter.

I pray that her soul might be resting in that everlasting peace.

For more Veracity posts on Pentecostalism, the Charismatic movement, and the prosperity gospel, you might want to read the following posts. There is also a multipart blog series on “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” You can start with a book review that introduces the whole series.


A Virginia Story of African-American Pentecostalism

During the heights of the 1930’s Great Depression, Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux rose as one of the most prominent African-American radio evangelists, in the history of Pentecostalism. What many do not realize is that his story began near Williamsburg, Virginia, my home town.

Michaux was born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1885. During World War I, Michaux was able to use his business acumen successfully, to obtain contracts to supply food to American troops. By 1917, Michaux had moved his family and business to Hopewell, Virginia, but he was unable to find a church, that fit well with him. Michaux had been drawn into the burgeoning Holiness movement, but he felt that more could be done to advance the Gospel, so he then moved more in Pentecostal circles.

Lightfoot Solomon Michaux (1885 – 1968). Pentecostal Radio Evangelist, Church Planter, Business Entrepreneur, and Founder of the Gospel Spreading Farm, near Williamsburg, Virginia.

Michaux returned to Newport News in 1919, following the war, and began a series of tent revivals, that appealed to many local African Americans. But Michaux bristled against newer Segregation laws in Virginia, and was sent to prison. The racial conflict spurred Michaux onwards, to expand his preaching ministry for the Gospel and against racism, and establish churches. After leaving prison, he moved his ministry operations up to Washington, D.C.

In 1929, Michaux persuaded a local radio station to broadcast his evangelistic services, called the “Happiness Hour.” When the radio station was bought by the CBS Radio Network in 1932, Michaux was catapulted into the national spotlight, with perhaps as many as 25 million radio listeners. He even ventured into international radio ministry with the BBC, in the mid-1930s, thus establishing him as a pioneer, in global radio outreach ministry.

According to the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily, in 1936, Michaux purchased a 500 acre tract of land, located along the James River, just a few miles from Jamestown, Virginia, thus creating the “National Memorial to the Progress of the Colored Race in America.” Locals in Williamsburg know it is the “Gospel Spreading Farm.” When the Colonial Parkway was expanded to connect Williamsburg and Jamestown in the 1950s, the federal government secured a right-of-way, along the river, from the Gospel Spreading Farm, to complete the road project.

Michaux’s vision was to create a type of cooperative farming community, which would serve as a haven for African-Americans, offering educational and evangelistic programs. Michaux believed that a coming economic crisis, an order of magnitude worse than the Great Depression, would severely cripple the American economy. He believed that the farm would become a refuge for thousands of African Americans, to survive such an apocalypse.

Neither the apocalypse, nor the full vision of a highly-functioning, cooperative community, ever materialized. The national influence of Michaux was further eclipsed by a new rising star, in the African-American community, Martin Luther King, Jr.

According to the New York Times, Michaux was highly suspicious of Martin Luther King. Michaux did not believe that King’s vision, enacted through protest marches and sit-ins, was wholly inline with Christian values. Instead, Michaux believed that the crisis of racism in the American culture, could only be resolved through evangelistic preaching, and not through social protests. Michaux even embraced the idea that Martin Luther King was secretly a Communist, and Michaux at times cooperated with J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, to undermine King’s influence.

Michaux was fearless and bold in his preaching. One story from the mid-20th century segregation era relates that Michaux preached at an “all-white, KKK-infested congregation” in Baltimore, Maryland. But his preaching was so effective that a white klansman was converted and joined a branch of Michaux’s African American Church of God, in Baltimore.

Michaux died in 1968. The Gospel Spreading Farm is still in operation, but a dispute in Michaux’s local church, over the land management, led to a split in the community, that for some remains unresolved. The Gospel Spreading Farm is quietly tucked away at the very end of Treasure Island Road, a spur off of Lake Powell Road. Yet residents of Williamsburg will be most familiar with the legacy of Michaux, when they see Oleta Coach Lines buses traveling up and down the roads, surrounding the Williamsburg area. Oleta is family owned and operated, through some church members, who grew up under the shadow of Michaux’s influence.

Below is a film clip from one of Michaux’s evangelist radio sessions, singing his signature song, “Happy Am I.”


The Miracle of the Holy Fire?

The Holy Fire emerges from the tomb of Jesus, at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (credit: Greek City Times)

I meant to post something about this last weekend, but this past Sunday was Pascha, the Eastern Orthodox celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, otherwise typically known as “Easter” among English-speaking Western Christians. Different methods of calculating the day of Easter explains why the Eastern and Western churches are not always in sync, when it comes to celebrating the Resurrection.

But I am glad that I waited to post something until now, in that I ran across a very interesting article, by Rod Dreher, of The American Conservative, addressing a popular Eastern Orthodox tradition, associated with Holy Saturday, the day right before Pascha/Easter. Dreher is the author of the widely discussed book The Benedict Option, a prolific journalist, who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy several years ago.

As readers of Veracity might know, I believe that evangelical Protestants have a lot to learn from the Eastern Orthodox. Sadly, Eastern Orthodoxy remains an enigma to most evangelical Protestants, who tend to confuse Eastern Orthodoxy with Roman Catholicism, which only shows just how myopic some evangelical Protestants can be.

When the (once) popular evangelical apologist Hank Hanegraff was received into the Greek Orthodox church in 2017, you would have thought that he had renounced Christianity altogether, based on the criticism levied by some evangelical Protestants. Some even think that Mormonism is more theologically orthodox than Eastern Orthodoxy, which is a pretty laughable judgment.

To summarize those previous posts: Eastern Orthodoxy (abbreviated hereafter as “EO”) does have a lot going for it. Let me list a few of the reasons:

  • A generous posture towards “disputable matters,” for non-essential Christian doctrine: For evangelical Christians tired of the on-going theological debates among Protestant evangelicals, that never seem to go anywhere, EO is like a breath of fresh air. Among the EO, they do not get hung up on matters such as the minute details of the “End Times”, the age of the earth, or the dispute over God’s sovereignty vs. human responsibility. Even though the Book of Revelation is considered to be canonical Scripture, the EO refrain from being obsessive in parsing out the technical details of the book. When it comes to the first few chapters of Genesis, most EO have no problem with the use of metaphorical language to express great theological truth. The dispute between Calvinists and Arminians among evangelical Protestants is a mute point among the EO. On and on the list goes.
  • A consistent and awe-inspiring liturgy, that unites the faithful: For the EO, worship is theology and theology is worship. There is a strong emphasis on integrating doctrine with practical spirituality, something that is often missing in evangelical circles. A profound sense of reverence pervades the corporate worship experience. This is in contrast to a popular trend in many evangelical circles today, where Sunday worship looks more like a rock concert followed by a TED talk, than it does an attitude of awe of being in the presence of a Holy God.
  • A moderate and stable view towards “women in ministry” : Evangelical Protestants love to fight about the so-called “women in ministry” issue. Evangelical churches tend to divide from one another, with complementarians on the one side, opposing women serving as elders, in a local church, and egalitarians on the other side, promoting women to serve as elders. Mark my word, in a good twenty years, you will see even starker lines between complementarian and egalitarian evangelical churches, where you can tell the difference, just by examining what Bible translation is being used by that church. Such a trend does not bode well for the evangelical movement, as such a trend merely reinforces tribalism….  But among the EO, this issue has been settled for hundreds of years. Yes, only men are permitted to serve as priests, and preside over the administration of the sacraments. But in most of the EO churches I have seen, women are more involved in the leadership of the local community, than they are in many evangelical congregations today…. which is all the more ironic, in that the growing trend towards egalitarianism among evangelicals puts up yet another barrier to reconciliation among the Great Traditions of the church.

Yet like any other Christian tradition, EO is not perfect:

  • Nominalism is rampant. More than a few EO are Orthodox in name-only. While many EO Christians have a profoundly deep, even evangelical faith, a vast number of EO parishioners go to church simply because of family tradition, or because there is a sense of fear coming from the local priest or bishop. But then again, that happens in just about every Christian tradition.
  • EO theology sometimes seems fixed in the 8th century: The EO have not had a major church council meeting since the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 A.D. The EO emphasis on their long-abiding tradition often leaves them resistant to making certain changes, that would not necessarily compromise their core theological commitments. But a number of EO theological traditions strike evangelical Protestants today as being quite quirky, like the perpetual virginity of Mary.
  • EO churches tend to be more ethnocentric. This is easily seen in the United States. There is an Orthodox Church of America, that spawned off from Russian Orthodoxy, but still, the majority of EO movements in America are strongly tied to their non-American ethnic roots, like the Ukranian, Russian, and Greek Orthodox churches. This has made it hard for the EO to fully integrate into the broader American culture, inhibiting the EO from establishing an authentically American flavor of EO faith.

Anyway, what I wanted to highlight here is this popular tradition among the EO on Holy Saturday. Tradition has it that a miracle occurs every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, on Holy Saturday: the miracle of the “Holy Fire.” The story goes like this: a blue light emerges from the traditional location of Jesus Christ’s tomb, rising above a stone slab, where it is thought that Jesus’ body was laid on Good Friday evening. From the light, candles are lit and then taken outside of the tomb, so that other pilgrims can have their candles lit.

What was quite unusual in 2020 was that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was officially closed this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so there were only a handful of priests on-site to witness the miracle.

I must admit, I am a bit skeptical of this. But I appreciate the perspective shared by Rod Dreher, that his faith is not built upon such signs and wonders. Below is the video posted by Rod Dreher, showing the moment when the Holy Fire is used to light the candles, that are taken out of the tomb. What do Veracity readers think of this?


Is There a Difference Between a Carnal and Spirit-Filled Christian?

As a young Christian in my college years, I wrestled a lot with what it meant to be a “spirit-filled” Christian. I had a lot of trouble trying to figure out why I was not always living a more “sanctified” life. (SPOILER ALERT: I still struggle with sin and temptation, of course, all these years later. But hopefully now, I have a more theologically sound way of approaching this!)

I read a number of books written by Christian authors who sought to address this topic of living a “spirit-filled” life. Yet the most memorable thing I read was a small tract put out by Campus Crusade for Christ (now CRU), “Have you made the wonderful discovery of the Spirit-filled life?You can still find it, in a more contemporary form, at CRU’s website.

It had something very much like the above diagram on it, showing the difference between a natural man (a non-believer, essentially, who puts the finite self/ego on the throne of their life, and leaves Christ outside), a spiritual man (a “Spirit-filled” Christian who put Christ on the throne, and has everything in order, in their life), and a carnal man (a Christian, who still has the finite self/ego on the throne, with Christ set off to the side, and disorder in their life).

It was a very gripping image. As a Christian, I knew that I was not a natural man, but I really was not sure if I was a spiritual man. I struggled with sinful impulses all of the time. Based on that illustration, I concluded that I must have been a carnal man.

Well, I was not entirely sure, but that seemed like what the tract was teaching.

Nevertheless, I can say that the idea behind it encouraged me to take my walk with Jesus more seriously. God certainly used that little tract in my life, to get my attention, and spur me on towards a greater depth of spiritual maturity. I know of countless other believers who have benefited from this type of teaching, albeit to varying degrees.

However, after reading this several times over, at various times, I was always left with the nagging question: Have I really crossed the threshold from being a carnal Christian to becoming a spirit-filled Christian, from a carnal man to a spiritual man? How would I know when I had successfully made that jump to that next level, in my spiritual journey?

For some reason, that crucial moment, whereby I could have this life-changing experience, that would give ultimate victory over persistent sin in my Christian life, remained elusive. What was wrong? Was it my lack of faith? My failure to properly surrender everything in my life, and hand it over to God? What was the problem?

Well, it turns out that there was a fundamental error in how I was reading my Bible. While this idea of a “carnal vs. spirit-filled” Christian was well-intended, it failed to accurately interpret the Bible passages that address this issue.

The key passage to look at is 1 Corinthians 2:6-3:4. Drilling down on 1 Corinthians 2:14-15, Paul is describing people as being either “natural” or “spiritual.” The “natural” are the non-believers, whereas the “spiritual” are the believers in Christ.

Paul then chastises the Corinthians for not acting like who they are, as taught in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4. As Christians, the Corinthians were supposed to be “spiritual.” Yet Paul finds the Corinthian Christians to be “people of the flesh” or “carnal.” But was Paul really teaching that the “carnal” were of some third category; that is, “carnal Christians?”

In his exceedingly helpful and short book on the topic, No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Came From, What It Is, and Why It’s Harmful, Andrew Naselli explains what Paul is getting at:

“Based on the way the Corinthians were acting, Paul could not address them as who they actually were. Although they were people who had the Spirit, they were acting ‘as’ … or ‘like’ people not having the Spirit because people having the Spirit characteristically live a certain way. That is why Paul addresses them this way. He is not laying out three categories into which all people fall: natural, carnal, and spiritual.” (Naselli, Kindle location 1031)

Paul is perfectly aware that Christians can sometimes drift back into old ways of thinking, and fall back into lifestyle choices that discredit their Christian witness.  Naselli continues:

“Believers may temporarily live in a fleshly way but believers by definition live in a characteristically righteous way” (Naselli, Kindle location 1031)

Rather, Paul is calling out the Corinthians to remember who they really are, bought with a price, by the Savior’s blood. If someone who calls themself a “Christian” persists in thinking and living carnally, then there is a strong possibility that such a person is no “Christian” at all. There is no room in Paul’s mind for someone to be in some awkward third category, a “carnal” Christian who is somehow “saved,” but who really is not following after God.

All Christians, at various times in their lives, temporarily lose their focus on Christ. This is not unusual. But the answer to this is to recall what it truly means to be Christian, and not settle for some halfway spot as a “carnal” Christian, convincing themselves that they can somehow squeeze their way into God’s heaven, despite a persistent rebellion against the things of God.

Many people who are drawn to call themselves “carnal Christians” may feel a certain anxiety as to whether or not they really are Christians. The convenient label of “carnal Christian” could be a way to avoid such anxiety.

But perhaps that experience of anxiety is the very thing we need: Am I truly a Christian?

Many have called themselves “Christians” for years, only to spiritually wake up years down the road to realize that they knew nothing about what it meant to truly trust in the Lord, for His saving work in our lives. We can be “religious” for a very long time, with all of the outer trappings to convince others of our spiritual acceptability, and still not not truly know Jesus.

Likewise, there are many who are, in fact, genuine Christians, but who have convinced themselves that they have not yet crossed that threshold from being a “carnal” to a “spirit-filled” Christian. God can surely give us remarkable experiences, where we can give testimony to particular “fillings of the Holy Spirit,” that move us towards greater depths in our walk with Jesus. We can indeed be thankful for such gracious interventions in our lives by God, to spur us onward.

However, at the same time, there are both ups and downs to the Christian life. This is to be expected. Paul’s experience with the Corinthians shows that believers can sometimes take two-steps forward, only to then take three-steps back. But if we truly know that the Holy Spirit is within the believer, sanctifying the believer, slowly and gradually, but nevertheless towards that ultimate goal of being glorified, then we can be comforted that temporary lapses in our spiritual walk do not signal ultimate defeat. Rather, these moments are to give us the opportunity to realize that God has not given up on us. We can turn from our sin, accepting God’s forgiveness, and move on. He will give us the Victory, but it will be according to His timing and His purposes.

Leaning upon God, step-by-step, day-by-day, spending time in God’s Word, over the long haul, brings greater long term fruit than always seeking after some crisis-moment experience, when one can fully “surrender unto God,” that always seems somehow elusive.

As Paul wrote to the Colossians:

To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:27-28 ESV)

May we all trust that the Holy Spirit is working in the life of every true believer, that we may all be presented as mature in Christ, as we walk with Him. AMEN!

This tract, published by the then Campus Crusade for Christ, made the rounds in Christian circles for decades, since the mid-1960s. Many have benefited from its simple message. Others have been confused by it. I was one of those in the latter category.

So, Where Did This Idea of a “Carnal vs. Spirit-Filled” Christian Come From?

My purpose for highlighting this problem over a “carnal vs. spirit-filled” Christian is not to throw anyone else under the bus. This type of teaching has been well-intended over the years, but upon closer scrutiny, it does not deliver what is ultimately promised. This type of teaching was a staple of the Holiness movement, that captivated thousands and thousands of Christians, beginning in the late 19th century, and was prominently featured at the then well-known Keswick conferences, large Christian gatherings held at a beautiful lake district in England, beginning in 1875. Over time, the Keswick Convention began to eventually de-emphasize these teachings, and it is no longer associated with such “early Keswick” ideas today. But some ideas do linger on, in the minds of many Christians. While a variety of these insights may still be of benefit for some, they can be debilitating to others.

This teaching that originally came out of those early Keswick conferences emphasized the importance of being “spirit-filled” as the key to living the so-called “higher life,” or “victorious” Christian living. But the Apostle Paul only mentions being “spirit-filled” once in all of his New Testament letters, Ephesians 5:18. So it seems really out-of-balance to make “spirit-filled” THE crucial factor for “Victorious Living,” as a Christian, when other more common themes of the Apostle Paul are minimized by “Higher Life” teachers. As Andrew Naselli points out, before the 19th century Holiness movement, Christians never placed that much emphasis on being “spirit-filled” (Naselli, Kindle location 1086). For example, many Puritan Bible teachers of the 17th and 18th century, such as the English Puritan, John Owen, commonly understood being “spirit-filled” as a life-long process, and not as a result of some definitive, post-conversion crisis experience.

Thankfully, most modern Bible translations have moved away from the language of a carnal Christian. For example, just look at 1 Corinthians 3:1.  The venerable King James Version has:

“And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.” 

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this, but it could be confusing. On the other hand, the NIV takes some of the confusion away:

“Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ.” 

That is, the problem with the Corinthians is that they are still thinking in the manner of being non-believers. They have not matured enough in their faith, to fully understand the impact of what it means to be truly spiritual. There is no special category of a carnal Christian, as taught by late 19th century Keswick theology. Rather, this is simply Paul’s way of saying that the Corinthians are still worldly in their thinking, having not fully grasped yet the depths of their faith.

Sometimes, novel ways of reading the Bible are indeed superior to older ways of understanding Scripture. Christians in the past were surely not perfect, and they did get the Bible wrong at times, on certain matters. But the burden of proof should be on those with such novel interpretations, who might challenge the wealth of tried-and-true interpretations of the Bible, that have stood the test of time.

No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Came From, What It Is, and Why It’s Harmful, by Andy Naselli, examines why the “carnal vs. spirit-filled” Christian idea fails to adequately reflect the teaching of Scripture.

For a helpful, deeper exploration of this topic, particularly for those who might be still confused about this whole “carnal vs. spirit-filled” Christianity stuff, I would highly recommend Andy Naselli’s No Quick Fix. Andy Naselli blogs at his own website. He also wrote a great book on the Christian conscience, another book I highly recommend and that I reviewed last year.

 


Houston, We Have A Problem

Fifty years ago today, the crew of Apollo 13 safely landed in the Pacific ocean. The ordeal was incredibly stressful, but following an oxygen tank explosion, that crippled the space craft, it was truly amazing that they made it back. The New York Times reports that luck played a major role, in the astronauts safe return. If the explosion had happened much later in the mission, there would have been a much greater chance that a successful return would have been impossible.

But I am not so convinced about that “luck” assessment. Theologically, providence had that role to play. What really stands out is the incredible effort, that the astronauts and the ground crew had, in working together, to solve the problem, and get the astronauts safely back home. That, in and of itself, is a lesson we can all learn.

A fascinating website chronicles the journey of Apollo 13, moment by moment.


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